Oxford’s mental health: time for change

What do we get from Oxford? We get the opportunity to learn more and faster than our peers, we get better job prospects, and we get a justified sense of achievement for all that work we put in to get here. We all know these headline benefits, but if you ask an average Oxford student what it feels like to be at Oxford two more telling words come out: “tired” and “stressed.”

People expect to work hard, but that is not the only thing which hides behind these words. The truth is they refer to the exhaustion and weekly peaks and troughs of stress, to anxious tension building up in our minds as that week’s deadline approaches, reaching fever pitch before crashing in a blowout of relief, the next tidal wave already visible as the second or maybe even the third deadline of the week approaches. The pounding of this tide of work takes its toll on all of us – it doesn’t take a psychology DPhil to tell you that such regular extremes of mental tension are unhealthy. But it’s Oxford, it’s expected, right? 5th week blues are just a fact of life, our predecessors did it, and if we want the benefits we should persevere too. But the thing is, our predecessors didn’t know the costs as we now do; the impact depression and anxiety has on our physical health, on our academic productivity, and most importantly on our happiness.

Now we know those costs. In a much-cited Tab survey of mental health in Cambridge 21 per cent of respondents admitted that they had been diagnosed with depression with a further 25 per cent believing themselves to be suffering depression or other metal illness undiagnosed. That comes to a total of 46 per cent of the 1,749 respondents (making up around 15 per cent of all undergraduates in Cambridge at the time,) reporting difficulties with mental health compared to 6.7 per cent nationwide. As a baseline this is bad enough but when I dived into the stats of the extreme manifestations of this stress it took the meaning of those statistics to a whole different level. Eating disorders, panic attacks, self-harming and suicidal thoughts were rife. These are pains which leave lasting scars – to realise their extent disgusted me.

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Higher Education should be liberating and yet so many of us have felt imprisoned by it. It should be self-improving instead of giving rise to such self-destructive tendencies. Above all it should be a light we look back on, not the dark hole we escaped. As JCR President of Catz last year I realised the extent of the problem; acting as advocate in many rustication meetings I saw people at the point of breakdown time and again. Then, in Trinity term, I felt it for myself.

I like to think I have always had quite an objective view on stress and work which has protected me. Watching my parents both in unhappy jobs, my mum’s temper shortened by the looming stress of redundancies while my dad being regularly brought down by stress-induced migraines made me promise myself to never do any job which made me fundamentally unhappy. I knew when to take breaks from work and when to give up on it and seek help, but last term I couldn’t take a break – under the weight of a nightmarish battle with Catz finance committee over independence, with more rustication meetings in the lead up to finals than ever before, and with University Hockey commitments and completely unintelligible models, I found myself unhappy. I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I wanted to say sack this and walk away. Thankfully my housemates supported me and pushed me through to the holidays.

These experiences have hardened me in the view that something needs to change fast and to call bullshit to the claims that this level of student mental health is an unfortunate but necessary side effect of our world class education. We at Oxford are at greater risk; having become accustomed to success we are therefore unequipped to cope with perceived failure. Because of this our solutions need to be more structural and more proactive.

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I don’t think that anyone is willing to demand the adjustments necessary to pre-empt the rustication culture we have established in response to the mental health crisis on our campuses. I also don’t think that those who have become the student politics elite truly believe that we can effect change where it counts – in caps in weekly work load, in college in-house counselling services, in an end to term time punitive collections, in term lengths, and in reading weeks.

OUSU needs new people who know the power we have as students and who know how to communicate it in terms the new generation of academic administrators understand, as consumers. People who won’t accept that conference income is the most important thing. At the moment the debate is over reactive policies like access to libraries for rusticated students. Together let’s move that debate to a place where we can stop those people needing to rusticate at all.